This article reviews the current trend in autism treatment which involves trying to identify and treat the underlying causes of autism symptoms. We offer functional medical testing and autism treatments guided by the general DAN (Defeat Autism Now) philosophies which includes a treatment plan based on medical testing, and nutritional interventions.
What is Autism?
Autism (also known as autism spectrum disorder) is the name given to a group of major developmental disorders in which individuals who are affected exhibit severe problems with communication, behavior, and social relationships. Autism is most frequently diagnosed around the third year of age, when caregivers begin to notice abnormalities in a child's behavior and development.
However, there are indicators of autism that can be detected in infancy, such as arching away from physical contact, excessive fussiness, a notable lack of crying, and failure to make eye contact with parents or caregivers.
Individuals with autism often appear self-absorbed and show no interest in other people or the world around them; they tend to avoid physical contact and do not respond with affection to parents and caregivers . Autistic children are frequently delayed in speech development, and they may engage in repetitive behaviors such as rocking and hand-flapping. They are generally strongly attached to a daily routine and become very upset if it is disrupted.
The term 'autism' has been in use for over one hundred years as a description for a variety of psychiatric abnormalities; it was not until the 1940's that medical professionals in the United States began using the term to refer to individuals with severe social and developmental challenges. It is estimated that autism occurs in about 1/4% to 1/2% of live births; males are three times more likely to be affected than females.
Formerly, it was thought that autism could not be treated, and patients with autism were often institutionalized. We now know that with early intervention and treatment, children with autism can function at very high levels. Treatment is tailored to individual symptoms, and it encompasses a range of behavioral interventions, medications, and dietary therapy.
Results are most often positive; adults with autism may remain in the home of a caregiver, but many go on to group homes or even live independently. Autistic people have completed high school, received college degrees, and held jobs. Those who have responded most favorably to treatment have even been able to sustain close personal relationships, going on to marry and raise families.
Causes of Autism
There is no single, definitive cause of autism. The symptoms produced by the disorder arise from the failure of different parts of the brain to interact normally. Magnetic resonance imaging of autistic subjects has shown various abnormalities in different areas of the brain. In particular, the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, emotions, learning and aggression, appears underdeveloped in patients with autism and contains fewer receptors for important neurotransmitters.
In addition, their brain biochemistry indicates low levels of neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, as well as increased levels of histamine.
There does appear to be a genetic component to the disease; studies show that both members of a pair of twins are more likely to develop autism than a pair of fraternal twins.
There is also some evidence of a viral influence. Exposure to rubella during the first trimester of pregnancy increases the risk of autism, and there is an apparent link to Cytolomegalo virus as well. There has been an increasing amount of concern that certain viruses associated with childhood vaccinations may be responsible for autism, including measles and pertussis, although current studies have not yet proven a correlation.
In areas where there is a high level of environmental contamination from manufacturing, especially where heavy metals are involved, there seems to be a higher incidence of autism. Due to the growing prevalence of autism in these communities, a number of agencies are conducting investigations into possible environmental causes of autism.
Autism is a complex disorder, and those who are affected exhibit widely variable symptoms. A number of sub-categories of autism syptoms have been classified, some of which include Asperger's Syndrome, Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD), Rett Syndrome, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Autism as a general topic will be addressed here, with an overview of the core autism symptoms experienced nearly universally by individuals with some form of the disorder.
Children with autism frequently experience delays in learning to speak; some never learn to talk at all. Others begin speaking at an early age and lose their communication skills later on. Some autistic people have a tendency to repeat a single word or phrase over and over again. Individuals with autism may have difficulties holding a conversation or understanding implied meanings and humor. They are unlikely to observe or comprehend body language and often fail to understand that others hold a different perspective than they do.
Autistic individuals experience difficulties in relating to other people. They are unlikely to form friendships with peers or enjoy activities with others; they typically lack empathy or understanding of the feelings of another person. Children with autism tend to be socially awkward (sometimes profoundly) and engage in unusual behaviors, making them seem odd to others.
Many individuals with autism are unable to understand that others have different thoughts, points of view, and feelings than they do. They may have savant skills, where they display an extraordinary ability within a confined subject, like music, mathematics, or painting (this occurs in about 10% of autism cases), or they may have an extremely limited ability to focus their attention.
Some autistic children display lower than normal intelligence; older people with autism may be predisposed to anxiety and depression.
Autistic individuals often become preoccupied with a circumscribed topic or activity. Children with autism may focus on only one part of a toy; adults may be fascinated by a single, particular pastime, or they may display obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
People with autism tend to become very attached to routines and are tremendously upset when they are interrupted. They often perform repetitive behaviors like rocking back and forth, and inflict self-injury by head-banging or biting their hands or arms.
Many autistic children have difficulties sleeping. They have trouble falling asleep, wake up easily, and sleep poorly. This may in part be due to hypersensitivity to touch and sound; additionally, their inability to interpret social clues (such as noticing others getting ready for bed) can impede the process of settling in for sleep. A further explanation, however, is that autistic subjects typically appear deficient in tryptophan, the amino acid necessary in producing the sleep hormone melatonin.
Stimulus/Response to Pain
Some autistic individuals experience extreme tactile sensitivity and shy away from any physical contact; others appear nearly insensitive to any tactile stimulation or pain. Autistic children have exhibited both hypersensitivity and lack of responsiveness to sound; some are also over-sensitive to light.
Intestinal Dysfunction/Food Allergies
Many individuals with autism experience intestinal dysfunction and sensitivities to certain foods. A large percentage of children (as many as 60%) with autism experience intestinal cramping and bloating, infrequent bowel movements, and diarrhea.
Intestinal bacteria and yeasts produce neurotoxins which evidently affect autism, and a large number of individuals have ulcerations throughout their gastrointestinal tract which impede nutrient absorption (this is often referred to as "leaky gut").
Autistic individuals, especially children, are also highly susceptible to food allergies which can produce behavioral abnormalities; in particular, parents often indicate that their autistic children have sensitivities to foods containing casein and gluten.
Medical Testing for Autism
Many children with autism have food allergies due to their impaired digestive systems. Food Allergy test for sensitivities, as well as allergies to food additives, can pinpoint problematic areas of the diet.
Testing for heavy metals can indicate the presence of toxic materials such as mercury, arsenic, lead, nickel, and copper, to name a few, which cause adverse effects in the body.
Testing for vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other essential nutritional elements is indicated for autistic patients to highlight dietary deficiencies or imbalances. Autistic children, in particular, are vulnerable to nutritional deficits due to behaviors like food aversions or insistence on only eating one particular food.
A screen of the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and others is a useful tool in pinpointing imbalances in brain chemistry associated with autism.
Screening for amino acids can provide information on possible food allergies, chemical sensitivities, and nutritional imbalances that are linked with various disorders, including autism. Amino acids are necessary for the formation of neurotransmitters, hormones, enzymes, antibodies, immunoglobulins, glutathione, and many other substances.
Autism patients frequently show high levels of Candida (a yeast) in their intestines. Lab testing can detect excessive levels of Candida in the digestive system.
Low levels of essential fatty acids occur in most residents of the U.S., but especially in those with autism. Available by blood draw or fingerstick.
Testing of histamine levels in the blood provides information on abnormalities associated with many disorders, including the impaired brain function linked to autism.
Dietary Changes for Treating Autism
Research has shown a strong correlation between the gastrointestinal system and autism. Studies are currently underway to explore the connections between certain food items and their effects on autistic subjects.
There is a good deal of evidence that autistic children respond positively to the removal of all wheat and dairy products from their diets. Casein, or milk protein, appears to be broken down in the intestines of autistic children into toxic peptides that imitate the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and opiates. Gluten, the protein in wheat, has a similar effect on individuals with autism.
Urine samples of autistic subjects have revealed the presence of opiates in their system, which could be a partial explanation for a good deal of the behavior they tend to exhibit. It has been theorized that autistic people lack the enzymes that break down the peptides formed by gluten and casein into a digestible, beneficial form.
Although this theory has not been fully accepted in the medical community, anecdotal evidence from many parents with autistic children indicates vast improvement in children who are given a diet free of gluten and casein. In some cases, the autistic traits have disappeared altogether.
A large proportion of autistic children and adults suffer from dietary deficiencies. This is in part due to their impaired ability to digest and absorb certain nutrients; patients who are following a casein and gluten free (GFCF) diet are also prone to have insufficient levels of calcium and other minerals.
Researchers and medical professionals are convinced that dietary supplements are a vital element in the treatment of autism. It is recommended that autistic individuals receive a full spectrum of vitamin and mineral supplements; laboratory testing can highlight particular deficiencies.
Other suggested autism supplements include: